Dr. Cathy Slemp, the commissioner for the Bureau of Public Health and state health officer who helped guide West Virginia through its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, resigned from her post Wednesday after Gov. Jim Justice publicly criticized reporting errors at her office during his daily press briefing hours earlier.
Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch asked for and received Slemp’s resignation after Justice “expressed to [Crouch] his lack of confidence in [Slemp’s] leadership ... due to a series of recent events involving issues under her direct control,” according to a news release from the Governor’s Office announcing the move.
In her resignation letter, a copy of which was provided to the Gazette-Mail by the DHHR, Slemp urged Crouch and others to “stay true to the science.”
“COVID-19 is a crisis unlike any most of us have ever seen. I encourage all to stay true to the science, to further work to engage and empower communities to address such an unprecedented situation collectively, to meet people where they are and to move forward together,” Slemp wrote.
“It is with mutual respect, support, a willingness to look at and understand both the science and the factors that drive them, and a dedication to moving forward together that will get the state through this together.”
During Wednesday’s news briefing, Justice said there is “every reason to believe” the number of active COVID-19 cases in the state are less than what was previously reported due to recovered cases not being removed from the active case count.
Justice cited numbers out of the Huttonsville Correctional Center, in Randolph County, though he did not offer details as to what caused the alleged discrepancy in reporting at the facility or how long the numbers may have been inaccurate.
While saying he did not want to “throw anyone under the bus,” and briefly acknowledging the error could have been “a breakdown at the local level,” Justice specifically named “Slemp’s office” as responsible for putting together case reports.
“If we’re on our game and you’re listening to the governor say there are six active cases in Huttonsville, and you’re putting [reports] together and you’re sending them to me on active cases, and you’re looking at Randolph County and they’re reporting an active 100 and odd cases, then you’re not doing your job,” Justice said.
“To be good at any job, you’ve got to have passion for doing the job and doing the job right, or you’re just dead-level asleep at the switch.”
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Randolph County was reporting 51 active cases of COVID-19 and 103 recovered cases, according to DHHR. As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, Huttonsville reported three active and 123 recovered cases.
Statewide numbers, updated daily on the DHHR coronavirus website, were corrected Wednesday, dropping from a high of 778 active cases on Sunday, to 688 Wednesday.
Slemp spent 17 years at DHHR, beginning as director of what is now the Division of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology in 1994, and serving as the state health officer from 2002 to 2011.
She returned to DHHR in 2018 as interim health officer when Dr. Rahul Gupta left the agency. In February 2019, she was named as the permanent health officer.
In her years away from DHHR, Slemp worked as a public health consultant for various organizations at both the local and national levels. She also spent several years in private practice.